When you're traveling, you're thinking about seeing the sights and having fun. However, if you let your guard down while on vacation, you can put your money at risk.
"Thieves are always on the lookout for unsuspecting tourists, awaiting the opportunity to steal wallets and other personal items such as smartphones and electronic devices," said Sandra Bernardo, manager of consumer education at credit reporting agency Experian. A survey commissioned by Experian's ProtectMyID identity theft service found that 39 percent of respondents had been victimized while traveling.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to keep your money and personal information safe while traveling. By taking these precautions, you'll be more likely to enjoy your travels.
1. Let your bank know you’re traveling
Banks often have sophisticated fraud monitoring systems that will flag purchases made outside of your regular geographic area, said Nicole Lorch, senior vice president of retail banking at First Internet Bank. So if you live in, say, New York and use your debit or credit card while on a trip in Florida, the bank might assume those purchases are fraudulent and freeze your account.
So be sure to let your bank and credit card company know when and where you will be traveling, Lorch said. This will allow you to continue spending while on the road because your financial institution won't mistake your purchases for fraudulent ones. Also, make sure your bank has your current cellphone number so it can contact you if it does suspect fraud, she said.
2. Lighten the load on your wallet
Before you hit the road, take everything out of your wallet you don't need, such as extra credit cards and loyalty cards. "Pare it down to the bare bones," Lorch said. If your wallet is stolen, you'll only have to cancel the one or two cards you kept in there rather than several.
Be sure to leave important documents such as your Social Security card at home, Bernardo said. "Losing these items, which include priceless personally identifiable information, will make you very susceptible to ID theft and fraud," she said.
If you need to take a passport to travel overseas, consider keeping it locked in the hotel safe rather than in your wallet.
3. Keep a record of important documents
Scan your passport, driver's license and other documents with personal identification before leaving on a trip, and email them to yourself and a family member or friend not going on the trip, said Katelyn O'Shaughnessy, CEO of travel planning app TripScope.
"If you lose them, this will save you time and money," she said.
You also should create a record of everything else that is in your wallet, according to Experian. You can scan your credit and debit cards, or write down account numbers and contact information for your financial institutions. Then you'll know what's missing if your wallet is stolen -- and you'll be able to cancel accounts if thieves get your cards.
4. Don’t keep cash in one place
If you take cash with you while traveling, don't stash it all in one place, O'Shaughnessy said. Keep some cash on you -- in your wallet, front pocket or money belt -- and put the rest someplace safe, such as a locked safe in your hotel room.
Make sure you don't put cash in luggage that you check in for flights, said Elizabeth Avery, founder of Solo Trekker 4 U. If you put part of your money in a carry-on bag, be aware that you might be asked to check it in before boarding if the bag weighs too much. So remember to retrieve your cash before your bag is stowed, Avery said.
5. Be careful about where you get cash
If you need cash while traveling, be careful about where you get it. Only use ATMs that are inside or attached to a bank because they will be under better surveillance, Lorch said. And avoid any ATM that has parts that seem loose, tampered with or are an after-market device -- in other words, something that's been attached to skim your card's information.
If you're traveling overseas, also avoid exchanging currency at tourist locales such as airports because you'll have to pay higher fees, O'Shaughnessy said. You may pay a lower exchange fee by converting currency at a local bank, she said.
6. Use credit, not debit
"Credit cards are safer to use because they have stronger legal protections than debit cards, and they won't withdraw funds from your account immediately," he said.
If your debit card is stolen or thieves get your account information when you swipe your card at an ATM that's been compromised, money can be withdrawn from your bank account immediately. Even if you alert your bank, it could take days or weeks to get the stolen money reimbursed.
"During that time, you do not have access to that money," said Glassberg.
7. Sign up for account alerts
Your bank and credit card company likely offer the option to sign up for email or text alerts to be notified of fraudulent activity on your account. For example, First Internet Bank allows account holders to receive alerts when transactions are made above a certain dollar amount or when the account balance drops below a certain threshold, Lorch said.
These alerts can help you keep tabs on your account and pinpoint any unauthorized transactions, she said. Be sure to sign up before going on vacation so you can catch any fraudulent activity and act quickly to limit the damage.
8. Don’t use public WiFi to access accounts
It might seem like a smart move to use public WiFi to surf the web with your phone while traveling, rather than getting hit with fees for exceeding your phone's data limit. But you could be putting your finances and personal information at risk if you log onto accounts using public WiFi. That's because there are several ways hackers can infiltrate WiFi connections -- even at hotels -- and intercept the information you transmit, Glassberg said.
"Cellular signals are harder to crack and, therefore, require a more sophisticated criminal," he said. "So while they're not 100 percent safe, you have a lower risk of getting hacked that way."
Also, make sure your phone is password protected and that apps for financial accounts have strong passwords with a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, numbers and symbols. This will make it harder for thieves to access your personal information if your phone is stolen or lost, Bernardo said.
9. Don’t make your wallet an easy target
Although it's important to take steps to avoid high-tech ways of having your account information stolen, make sure you're not making it easy for thieves to get your money the old-fashioned way -- by swiping your wallet.
Women should put their wallet at the bottom of a handbag that can be closed with a zipper or snaps, Lorch said. And men should keep their wallet in their front pocket rather than a back pocket, where it can easily be snatched.
Take extra caution in crowded areas, such as subways and train stations, Avery said. And be alert to people who are trying to distract you by asking for directions or jostling you. They could be working with another person who is snatching your wallet while your attention is diverted.